Copyright is the legal right to use, distribute, and sell or give away a creative work. Anything that is "fixed in any tangible medium of expression" has copyright protection under the law: photographs, drawings, books, articles, CD-ROMs, software code, blog posts, emails, et cetera. Under current copyright law, the creator of any work automatically owns copyright to that work as soon as they "fix it" -- in other words, write it down electronically, on paper, or in some other medium. One does not have to register their work with the US Copyright Office in order to receive copyright protection. However, registering one's work provides benefits for people who make commercial use of their works (for instance, licensing their compositions for use in movies) or who anticipate suing for copyright infringement.
Though you automatically own copyright once you have finished a work, if you publish or distribute your creation through a third party, you may be asked to sign over your copyright, giving up the rights to your own work. See "Author Rights" to learn how to regain your copyrights if you have already lost them or, if you have yet to publish your work, how you can negotiate with publishers for the right to keep your copyright.
If you wish to use others' copyrighted work for analysis in your own work or in the classroom, you should check out our Fair Use page to learn how to assess whether your use is "fair" or potentially infringing.
In recent years, a movement known as "copyleft," or "free culture," has gained popularity based on the idea that creative works should be allowed to be freely modified and shared for non-profit purposes. The copyleft movement encourages creators of works to license their materials with Creative Commons or other open content licenses, rather than using the full set of rights granted by copyright. Copyleft proponents argue that such licensing encourages creativity and innovation (FSF, 2005), and that creators' biggest problem is not privacy, but obscurity.
The concept of copyleft, a philosophical cousin to both Open Access and fair use, is thought to be especially relevant in an educational context, where copyrighted materials are often used for instruction and other non-profit purposes. However, critics of the copyleft movement believe that lessening restrictions on copyrighted material will make creators of such content less motivated to produce in the future, as their rights of ownership will be diminished (CA, 2008), or that adoption of the movement will simply weaken the overall system of copyright.
While academic, news, research, and other scholarly uses of content are strongly protected by the fair use doctrine, sharing files for personal entertainment uses is not so protected.
The entertainment industry has aggressively sought to control filesharing and uses they view as copyright infringements. They have sued thousands of people, resulting in settlements of thousands of dollars sometimes, and in two cases, resulting in court awards of hundreds of thousands of dollars. The recording industry argues that illegal downloads keeps record labels from signing new artists. (See FAQ guide from the Recording Industry Association of America for their perspective.)
Universities are required by federal funders to demonstrate that they are taking action to both educate users about copyright, and to stop copyright infringements by students. For more information, see the UMass Amherst Office of Information Technology page, warning of heavy fines for file sharing.